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Global Anti-Immigrant Panic
by Randy Persaud
Guyana Journal, June 2009

Please permit me to address the question of anti-immigrant sentiments in the Caribbean. I argue here, that these sentiments must be understood as part of a more generalized global phenomenon.

If you look at the reasons for which our country (Guyana) men and women are being picked on, you will realize that it is all too familiar in the saga of anti-immigrant hysteria.

The anti-immigrant hysteria takes many forms. Immigrants are charged with taking away jobs, pushing up the crime rate, inducing cultural erosion, and an amalgam of other ills. All too often, the immigrant population is blamed for all the failures of society.

Immigrants are like orphans; there is no one there to advocate for them, to look out for them, to protect their interests. Local politicians who attempt to speak on their behalf are dismissed as unpatriotic, of siding with the outsider. The immigrant becomes the trafficking symbol of all the pitfalls of society.

A survey of this global syndrome might be useful.

In South Africa, there have been violent attacks against fellow Africans. Somalis who have migrated to South Africa have seen their stores burnt to the ground, their houses ravaged, and many have even been killed. People from the former front-line states who gave so much in the struggle against apartheid, now find themselves groveling for acceptance in South Africa. Last year Sky News reported that immigrants from Zimbabwe had to seek refuge in police stations and churches.

In the Middle East the story is no different. African immigrants, mostly from the Horn, make their way to Yemen and then onward to Saudi Arabia. They are met with disdain both in Yemen and the oil kingdom. Some were shot at the Saudi border last year. In Saudi Arabia itself, immigrant women who function mostly as domestics have less rights in a country already infamous for gender discrimination.

What about Dubai? Eighty-five percent of the population in this emirate are immigrants. Most of them are from India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and North and East Africa. The immigrants work mostly in the construction and hospitality industries. While they make more money compared to their home countries, they are second class in every way. Most construction workers live in labor camps in conditions that UAE citizens would never accept. You might stay seven nights in Dubai, and apart from Immigration and Customs, you will never be 'served' by a non-immigrant.

In East and South East Asia the story is not much different. Malaysia regularly deports migrant workers from the Philippines, China, Indonesia, and Vietnam. Singapore administers six lashes before executing the deportation. Migrant workers do not do much better in Japan. Filipinas are routinely abused in Japan's $85 billion sex industry, and Korean workers who have been in Japan for decades have fewer rights than their Japanese counterparts.

Immigrants and migrant workers in Europe have more constitutional rights, but there is palpable insecurity on the streets. Albanians are the target of choice in Italy. Denmark and the Scandinavian countries have large right wing movements, most of them driven by anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim hysteria. Politics in France and Austria have major anti-immigrant components. Jean-Marie Le Pen's nationalist party has done remarkably well for years, and in Austria, Jorg Haider's far-right Austria Freedom Party has been on the rise. (Haider died in a car accident last year.) Belgium has the Vlaams Belang, a Flemish nationalist party with a skin-head anti immigrant branch. (I was refused service in a restaurant in central Brussels two years ago.) The Portuguese anti-immigrant skin-heads have become openly violent. Earlier this year some skin-heads surrounded a taxi which had a Guyanese-Canadian consultant. The taxi driver abandoned the vehicle, and the consultant was assaulted. Moroccan workers in Spain are regularly beaten. In 2005, Doctors Without Borders reported that 25% of patients seeking emergency medical attention were immigrants who had been beaten.

Russians have strong anti-foreigner feelings. Newspaper ads in Russia and some East European countries warn immigrants not to travel alone at night. The right-wing is stronger there than in Western Europe.

A Eurobarometer survey in 2008 found that only forty percent of Europeans think that immigrants contribute positively to EU countries. The figure is much lower in Germany - thirty percent. (In Germany Turkish workers are the ones abused.)

Across the channel the British National Party has not only carved out a spot in national politics, but also spaces on the streets of major cities. Drunken English skin-heads regularly attack African and South Asian immigrants. During the 1970s and 1980s Paki-bashing was a favorite sport. This phenomenon refers to violent attacks on South Asian immigrants. Most of the violence was actually visited on Bangladeshis who are darker than the Pakistani and North Indian immigrants.

The Paki-bashing in the U.K. migrated to Canada. While Canada is a good country to live in today, it does have a dirty anti-immigrant past. From the late 1970s through the mid-1980s immigrants were regularly assaulted on the streets, spat upon, refused jobs based on their heritage, etc. (I recall a time in the late 1980s when garbage was being dumped at the front door of an African doctoral student at York University, Canada.)

The United States is a great country for immigrants, but it is also quintessentially symptomatic of the global anti-immigrants panic. Latino immigrants are regular targets of the anti-immigrant right-wing. The Latino population has been constructed as a clear and present danger to American cultural identity. No less a figure than Samuel Huntington wrote a book on the supposed threat to America by Mexicans. Professor Huntington thus joined a long history of anti-immigrant nativism.

As we can see the anti-Guyanese sentiments in Barbados and Trinidad are not parenthetical. Bajan and Trini nativism must be understood as part of a larger global process of, on the one hand, wanting workers, but on the other, not wanting the workers to belong to the society. The basic dynamic is this: (1) employers want the foreign workers; (2) the local population benefits the most from the foreigners; (3) the locals do not want the families of these same workers; (4) politicians seize this contradiction and whip up anti-immigrant hysteria to win elections; (5) nativist groups come into the public because they have been legitimized by the politicians; (6) a dialectic of racialized anti-immigrant panic becomes embedded in the socio-cultural reproduction of the society.

This survey of the global anti-immigrant panic will be followed up by an article seeking to explain the dynamic of general labor migration.

Dr. Randy Persaud
Washington, DC